‘Bring my mother back’: Ukrainian citizens disappear in Russian prisons


Alina Kapatsyna often dreams of being called by her mother. In those visions, her mother tells her that she is coming home. Men in military uniforms took 45-year-old Vita Hannych from her home in eastern Ukraine in April. She never came back.

Her family later learned that Hannych, who has long suffered from epileptic seizures due to a brain cyst, is in custody in the Russian-occupied part of the Donetsk region.

Kapatsyna told The The Bharat Express News it remains unclear why her mother – “a peaceful, civil and sick person” who has never held a gun – was detained.

Hannych is one of hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of Ukrainian non-combatants believed to be held captive by Russian forces for months after their invasion. Some are considered prisoners of war even though they never took part in the fighting. Others are in some sort of legal limbo – not facing criminal charges or considered prisoners of war.

Hannych was wearing only a tracksuit and slippers when she was seized by Russian forces occupying her village of Volodymyrivka a few weeks after the February 24 invasion. It is still under the control of Moscow.

Her family initially thought she would be coming home soon. Russian troops were known to hold people for “filtration” for two or three days and then release them, Kapatsyna said, and Hannych had no military or law enforcement ties.

>> Read more: Reports of interrogations and house searches come from Russian ‘filtration camps’ in Ukraine

When she was not released, Kapatsyna and her 70-year-old grandmother launched a search. Initially, letters and visits to various Russian-installed officials and government agencies in the Donetsk region yielded no result.

“The answers were the same everywhere: ‘We didn’t take her.’ Who then took her, if no one took her? said Kapatsyna, who left the village in March for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Dnipro.

Then they finally got clarity: Hannych was imprisoned in Olenivka, another Russian-controlled city, according to a letter from the Moscow-installed prosecutor’s office in the Donetsk region.

Prison staff told Kapatsyna’s grandmother that Hannych was a sniper, allegations her family considers absurd given her condition. Medical records reviewed by the TBEN confirmed she had a brain cyst, as well as “residual encephalopathy” and “general convulsive seizures.”

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Anna Vorosheva, who spent 100 days in the same facility as Hannych, told of appalling, inhumane conditions: tainted drinking water, no heating or showers, having to sleep in shifts, and hearing new prisoners screaming because they were beaten.

Vorosheva, 46, said she had not been told why she was being held, apart from “grins and jokes about Nazis” – a reference to Russia’s false claims that what it calls its “special military operation” was a campaign to destroy Ukraine. denazify”.

She also said that the staff told her, “Be glad we don’t hit you.”

Donetsk authorities labeled Hannych a prisoner of war and recently told the family that she is imprisoned in the occupied city of Mariupol. It is not yet clear when she could be released.

Ukraine’s main human rights organization, Center for Civil Liberties, has filed requests regarding about 900 civilians detained by Russia since the start of the war, more than half of whom are still in custody.

Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s human rights envoy, put the number even higher, saying on Friday his office had received questions about more than 20,000 “civilian hostages” held by Russia.

Russian lawyer Leonid Solovyov told the TBEN he has collected more than 100 requests related to Ukrainian citizens. He said he could help 30-40 confirm that the person they were looking for was in Russian custody without any legal standing – as was his client, Mykyta Shkriabin.

The student from the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine was detained by the Russian army in March and has been held without charge or legal process since then.

Shkriabin, then 19, took shelter in a basement with his family from the fighting, according to his mother, Tetiana. During a break, he went out to get supplies – and never came back.

Tetiana Shkriabina told the TBEN she heard from witnesses that Russian soldiers seized him.

Months later, Solovyov received confirmation from the Russian Defense Ministry that Shkriabin was detained for “resisting the special military operation”. In Russia there is no such crime on the books, Solovyov said, and even if it were, Shkriabin would have been formally charged and investigated, but that has not happened. The ministry declined to reveal his whereabouts.

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Moreover, when Solovyov filed a complaint with the Russian Commission of Inquiry disputing the detention, it confirmed that no criminal investigation has been opened against Shkriabin and that he is not a suspect or accused.

Shkriabin, who lived to be 20 years old in captivity, has not been labeled a prisoner of war, the lawyer said, adding: “His legal status is simply a hostage.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Other cases are eerily similar to those of Shkriabin and Hannych.

In May, Russian forces arrested IT specialist Iryna Horobtsova in the southern city of Kherson when it was occupied by Moscow. They raided her apartment, seized a laptop, two cell phones and several flash drives, then took her away, according to her sister, Elena Kornii. They promised her parents that she would come home that night, but she never did.

Horobtsova remained in the city and spoke out against the war on social media before being detained, Kornii said. She had attended anti-Russian protests and also helped residents by driving them to work or finding scarce medicines.

“She didn’t break any Ukrainian law,” Kornii said, pointing out that her sister had nothing to do with the military.

Horobtsova’s lawyer, Emil Kurbedinov, said he believed Russian security forces in Kherson were carrying out “purges of the disloyal”.

He learned from the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, that she was still in custody. The Interior Ministry in Crimea annexed by Moscow told him that Horobtsova was in a detention center there. When Kurbedinov tried to visit her, officials refused to acknowledge that they had such a prisoner.

As for why she was detained, the lawyer said authorities had told him that “she opposed the special military operation and a decision will be made about her when the special military operation is over.”

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He described her as “unlawfully imprisoned.”

Dmytro Orlov, mayor of the occupied city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, similarly describes the fate of his deputy: “an absolutely arbitrary detention.”

Ivan Samoydyuk was captured by Russian soldiers shortly after they seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in March, and no charges have been brought against him, Orlov said.

“We’re not even sure he’s alive!” said the mayor. “If we cannot get clarity from the Russians about the fate of a deputy mayor, imagine the fate of ordinary Ukrainian citizens.”

Mykhailo Savva of the Expert Council of the Center for Civil Liberties said the Geneva Conventions allow a state to temporarily detain citizens in occupied territories, but “once the reason that caused the detention of this citizen disappears, this person must be released. ”

“No special conditions, no transactions, just release,” Savva said, noting that civilians cannot be declared prisoners of war under international law.

International law prohibits a warring party from forcibly displacing a civilian into its own territory or territory it occupies, and doing so could be considered a war crime, said Yulia Gorbunova, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

POWs can be exchanged, but there is no legal mechanism for exchanging non-combatants, Gorbunova said, complicating efforts to free civilians from captivity.

However, since the beginning of the war, Kiev has been able to take some home with it. Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on January 8 that 132 citizens will be returned from Russian captivity by 2022.

Lubinets, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, met with his Russian counterpart, Tatyana Moskalkova, this month.

He said he had given Moskalkova lists of some of the 20,000 Ukrainian citizens he said were being held by Russia, and “the Russian side agreed to find out where they are, in what condition and why they are being held.”

After obtaining such information, the question “of the procedure for their return” will be raised, Lubinets said.